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The Sisters Brothers ***

by Ruben Rosario

The Oregon Trail spreads across the screen in all its unvarnished splendor in this off-kilter Western that aims to deconstruct the genre without diminishing its casually Darwinian appeal, rewarding viewers' patience and giving John C. Reilly the chance to give one of his very best performances. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

Gunfire erupts in the dead of night as “The Sisters Brothers,” a new Western with zero plans of romanticizing the genre, opens. Moments later, a burning horse gallops into the dark void, There is no aesthetic allure to the bloodshed, no atmospheric music score to give the shootout a mythical grandeur. From the get-go, it's clear director Jacques Audiard wants to stamp out the signposts viewers associate with Old West screen yarns. And he takes his sweet ol' time doing so.

But stick with this quirky, refreshingly character-driven oater, even as it brandishes its relative lack of incident like a sheriff's star. This ramshackle tale moves to its singular, just-rolled-out-of-bed rhythms. It revels in awkward pauses, those in-between moments that studio productions are all too willing to leave on the cutting room floor. It's as if Audiard (“A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone”), a celebrated French helmer here making his English-language debut, wants you to become frustrated with its titular duo, to reach out through the screen and whack them in the back of the head.

Eli Sisters (John C. Reilly) and his trigger-happy younger brother Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) give you plenty of reasons to want to give up on them. Eli places more importance on horses' welfare than in human life. Charlie can't even stay sober enough to walk straight most of the time. But one has to give it to them: These hired guns are really good at what they do.

The year is 1851, and the skilled gunslingers are en route to nab Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist who bailed on their employer after promising a solution to his gold-seeking endeavors. The Sisters' associate, John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), has already made contact with the target further south on the Oregon Trail and has been instructed to wait for the siblings. (Gyllenhaal recites Morris' journal entries and letters in flavorful voiceover narration.) But this being the Old West, nothing goes according to plan, and things get messy.

The slender plot's unpredictable nature, coupled with the Sisters' rough-around-the-edges eccentricities, keeps the film engrossing despite its relative lack of narrative drive. The characters might be riding south in a straight line, but the film they're in ambles along in circles and is prone to go off in tangents. And yet it works, because Audiard and longtime screenwriting partner Thomas Bidegain, who are adapting Patrick DeWitt's novel, methodically etch an indelible portrait of fallible men adrift in a violent land that has eroded their moral compass, but not to the point that they're unable to make a connection. For example, the unlikely bond that forms between John and Hermann (a most welcome “Nightcrawler” reunion for Gyllenhaal and Ahmed) creates an oasis in the midst of “Sisters Brothers'” cycle of bloodletting.

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Audiard, aided by cinematographer Benoît Debie and production designer Michel Barthélémy, strip away the majesty of their photogenic setting. The film's digital surfaces are initially distracting, but Debie (“Spring Breakers”) uses them to achieve a raw immediacy. Think of Michael Mann's approach to the gangster genre in “Public Enemies,” and you get a sense of what Audiard is after here: no-frills honesty, but in this movie's case, also speckled with oddball humor. The results try your patience, especially during “Sisters Brothers'” rambling first hour, but they are also vividly transporting.

“This world is an abomination,” says Hermann, who dreams of creating a society free of greed that sounds suspiciously like socialism, and by that point one feels his despair. Audiard's Old West is a cesspool filled with distrust, betrayal and horse manure. (Don't get this reviewer started about the spider that crawls into Eli's mouth.) But human decency pokes through like sunlight through rain clouds, and Reilly's layered performance embodies those opposing qualities. He doesn't think twice about blowing men's brains out, but at heart, Eli is a homebody who's fed up with this life. A good momma's boy with a knack for leaving a high body count in his wake. Reilly's work is all the more commendable because of how unassuming it is. Much like the film he's in, he sneaks up on you when you least expect it.

Audiard is best known across the pond for his epic prison drama “A Prophet,” but I much prefer his smaller-scale early work, like the Cannes-winning satire “A Self-Made Hero” and the romantic thriller “Read My Lips.” Despite its accomplished production values and A-list cast, “The Sisters Brothers” feels like a throwback to those films, which play like intimate character studies disguised as genre entries. And like those previous films, this trope-eschewing (anti-) Western grapples with dark subject matter but refuses to go down like a downer. Bolstered by four strong central performances, the most surprising thing about “The Sisters Brothers” is how pleasant and raffishly likable it ultimately becomes.

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